The Ballad of Billy Lee. At Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, Sunday, December 10.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
As great American heroes go, George Washington enjoys a durable preeminence. He’s a double threat, as both a military commander and a statesman. The whole “first President,” “father of his country” mythology still packs a wallop. And even that wacky, apocryphal childhood story about the cherry tree has its charm. But the general has never been much of a buddy figure. Washington was never just one of the boys, and it can be hard to think of him as anyone’s sidekick. Len Lamensdorf’s remarkable new script about Washington’s slave Billy Lee succeeds not only in putting Washington in a useful new context, but also in managing to create a character in Billy Lee that can stand next to Washington without disappearing in his aura.
Billy Lee is a real historical figure about whom a fair amount is known, including the fact that he was mentioned by name, set free, and left a lifetime remittance in Washington’s will. The Ballad of Billy Lee begins with the marvelous Henry Brown coming onstage and letting us know immediately that we are hearing from an older man, who says, by way of introduction, “You shoulda seen me when I was younger!” From there the show takes us on a wild, unpredictable ride shoulder-to-shoulder with George Washington, from before the battles of Concord and Lexington through life at Mount Vernon and the entire war — including the notorious winter at Valley Forge — all the way to the Constitutional Convention, Washington’s inauguration in New York, and his eventual death at home in Mount Vernon.
What emerges is both familiar — Lee yearns for freedom and observes the colonies’ progress toward democracy from the embittered proximity of slavery — and strange, as the competing demands of military obedience and racial solidarity make for some intense contradictions. Along the way, Billy Lee manages to find (and lose) the love of his life, break both knees, get drunk, play the banjo, sing a bit, and tell some incredible and dramatic stories.
It’s hard to say where this remarkable project is headed next. Brown seems born to play the role, and it would be a pity for him not to be a part of whatever ends up being the next stage in its development. Yet, at more than two hours, the material sprawls well past the breaking point of even the most patient monologue fan. No doubt this is the most obvious course, but it does seem like The Ballad of Billy Lee could be a great film.